The Importance of Twitter to the Revolution

Over the past month in America we have seen a revolution, in more ways than one. Of course, we have seen people from all walks of life stand together in solidarity with the Black community in order to protest a broken system that enables police brutality and violence towards people of color, but a perhaps less-recognized revolution has come in the form of the use of social media as a tool to spread information during a protest via a method known as “crowdsourcing.”

Crowdsourcing refers to the practice of obtaining information by engaging a group or “crowd,” usually through the internet. It varies greatly from traditional reporting, primarily because there is very little accountability; however, that feature is what tends to make it an effective method of spreading information during a protest when protesters are in danger of being arrested. It is most common for crowdsourcing to occur via social media; Twitter and other social media sites have been the primary places of information dissemination in this time of crisis. Platforms that previously were thought to be frivolous or unreliable sources of news and information have proven to be a more accessible place for protesters and have given a platform to social justice movements in a way that the world has never seen before.

Twitter, phone, app Sara Kurfeß / Unsplash This is not the first time a protest has actively used Twitter, Instagram or other social media sites as a source for information, but it is likely the incident that will be most remembered by this generation. The use of social media as a means to broadcast information was a characteristic of the Occupy Wall Street protests, and was also used by activists internationally in Spain during the Indignados movement and in Greece for the Aganaktismenoi movement.

It is important to address the fact that we have not seen the same trend in the revolutions and protests in places such as Hong Kong; this is largely because there are more barriers to the unobstructed use of the internet and social media in those states, and fewer laws that protect the right to protest and the privacy of citizens in those countries. Scholars Yannis Theocharis, Will Lowe, Jan W. van Deth & Gema García-Albacete emphasize that the role that information technologies have taken on in modern society are as a tool for “strengthening participation in established democracies,” such as the United States.

Social media has been a major contributor to organization and mobilization in modern protests, and this trend is analogous to what we’ve seen of the Black Lives Matter Movement thus far; however, I want to draw attention here to the fact that the importance of social media in this movement has had just as much to do with making information available to those people who were not actively protesting as those who were. News outlets seem reluctant to publish some of more controversial images and videos of the police brutality that has occurred during these protests and have prioritized images of rioting on the part of protesters over the violence initiated by law enforcement. Without social media, this would never have been noted, but due to the availability and effective spread of images and video there has been evidence of such brutality.

Los Angeles Black Lives Matter protest Photo by Joseph Ngabo from Unsplash Younger politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, colloquially referred to as AOC, have also used Twitter to keep abreast of the protests. In a notable incident where protesters were trapped on the Manhattan Bridge by the NYPD, she immediately re-tweeted “What? No. This is dangerous. I’m heading there now.”

For protesters themselves, the harms of crowdsourcing via platforms such as Twitter can be intense, despite the organization’s utilization of content moderators (whose job it is to stop misinformation or take down harmful content). The hashtag “#DCblackout” spread misinformation about the situation for protesters in Washington, DC, on Monday June 1st. The hashtag garnered early support from what have now been classified as fake accounts, which allowed it to spread more quickly. The current understanding of the motivation behind the hashtag was that it was promoted in order to detract from the voices of the protesters and activists on the ground that night in DC. Twitter spokesman Brandon Borrman spoke to the Washington Post, saying, “We are actively investigating the hashtag #DCblackout and during that process have already suspended hundreds of spammy accounts that tweeted using the hashtag.”

However, despite its flaws Twitter has become a more accurate and more reliable source of information than many mass-media or mainstream media in some instances so far. This is due to Twitter’s ability to magnify the individual voices of protesters on the ground in every city that is protesting. No news outlet can be in hundreds of places at once; they have limits as to where they can go and in how many reporters they can mobilize. Another important fact about Twitter is that it is technically a content-neutral platform, in that unlike traditional news outlets it has no distinct party alignment or affiliation. This allows for more visibility of first-hand accounts (including, or perhaps especially, in regard photos and video content), rather than the condensed amalgamations that the mainstream media is known for.

It has been over a month since the beginning of the protests for the BLM Movement, and protests are continuing; we just don’t tend to see them on CNN or MSNBC anymore. The 24-hour news cycle has sensationalized news in a way that has a tendency to exclude the stories that are seen as “old news,” which is apparently now the case with the ongoing protests for the BLM Movement. From the presentation of these major news sites right now, any person would be led to believe the protests have died down or shrunken to near obscurity, despite the continuation of protests across the country.

black lives matter protests Photo by Clay Banks from Unsplash On the 4th of July, Huffington post senior reporter Christopher Mathias tweeted a video of a “massive march in Brooklyn” from the vantage point of one of the residences on that street. It is clear from the video and from the caption, part of which reads, “Been like this for 10 minutes,” that the protest was very well populated, indicating that marches such as this one have continued into July, despite the lack of mainstream media coverage that would indicate otherwise. #BlogHer cofounder and author Elisa Camahort Page re-tweeted with the words, “Protests continue all over the country every single day, even if the media has grown bored with it.”

It’s clear that we have reached a moment of unexpected change in this country. As a people, deciding how best to move forward largely depends on the information made available to us, and therefore on the media we consume. It has become more important than ever to be able to access news that is not selected and curated, but rather unimpeached and unfiltered, and social media sites have been the platforms that give voice to such sources; in a lot of ways, it’s given a certain power back to the people.

Author’s footnote: In recent years we have also seen the emergence of “crowdfunding,” which is a parallel phenomenon to crowdsourcing. You’ve likely seen it in GoFundMe pages or other online fundraisers, and currently we are seeing it used for bail funds for protesters around the country and to raise money for activist organizations and civil rights groups. Linked here is a page with various organizations that you can donate to during this time.